Patriots-Broncos: A look beyond the quarterbacks

Patriots-Broncos: A look beyond the quarterbacks
January 14, 2014, 4:45 pm
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Looking ahead to Sunday’s AFC Championship, there are two names that obviously stand out above the rest. A pair of legends. A pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. A pusher of subpar pizza and a promoter of Australian footwear.
 
These two have and will continue to get so much attention between now and kickoff. So much so that for one day I’m not going to mention them at all. Instead, I’m blasting the spotlight on everyone else. After all, it’s everyone else that typically makes the difference.
 
Of course, history doesn’t remember it that way, and it won’t this time around either. Regardless of how Sunday’s matchup unfolds, the outcome will be remembered for nothing more than the outcome, another win or loss for each quarterback in this historic rivalry, with little care for all the other factors that came into play.
 
But there will be other factors. There always are. For instance, do you remember the Patriots famous goal-line stand against the Colts in 2003?
 
Of course you do.
 
Do you remember Bethel Johnson’s 92-yard kick off return for a touchdown with less than 20 seconds left in the first half of that game?
 
Probably not. I didn’t. But it was huge.
 
Do you remember the Pats coming up short on 4th and 2 in 2009?
 
Of course you do.
 
Do you remember Laurence Maroney fumbling on the goal line with less than three minutes left in the third quarter and the Pats about to go up 31-14?
 
Probably not. I didn’t. But it was huge.
 
In each one of the previous 14 battles between the two quarterbacks who shall not be named, there have been plays like Johnson’s and Maroney’s — on both sides. There are countless forgotten heroes and goats that have been swept under the rivalry’s rug.
 
Here are seven guys who could fill that roll on Sunday.
 
LeGarrette Blount: LG is the most obvious of the bunch. Through the first 15 games of the season, he ran the ball 129 times for 583 yards and five touchdowns. In the last two games, he’s run 48 times for 335 yards and six touchdowns. He’s found football Jesus and his name is Belichick. Not bad return for the services of Jeff Demps.

But knowing Belichick, would you shocked if the last two games were all part of some elaborate plan to screw with Jack Del Rio and the Broncos D?
 
Who knows? Belichick might have the offense come out and throw the ball 25 times to start the game, or keep Blount on the bench and give Brandon Bolden 35 carries. You know how Belichick rolls in situations like this. Which is to say, you don’t how he’s going to roll. All bets are off! But in this case, Blount has emerged as a legitimate weapon (who was still finding himself back in November) and a real threat against the underrated Broncos run defense.
 
Trindon Holiday: Nothing turns a postseason game quite like a big special teams play and Holiday has made some big ones. Last year against the Ravens, he set NFL playoff records for longest punt return and longest kick off return, and became the first player in league history to return each for a touchdown in the same playoff game. Of course, the Broncos lost, but the Holiday threat remains.
 
Although, it isn’t as strong as it once was. Heading into Sunday, Holiday hasn’t scored on a return since September, and over that time, has fumbled his fair share of kicks. They don’t even have him returning punts anymore.
 
But he’s out there on kickoffs, and if Gostkowski isn’t able to send it through the end zone, Holiday will be a handful.
 
Last week against the Chargers, he had three kick returns for 77 yards, including a 37-yarder.
 
Stephen Gostkowski: Gostkowski has played two career games in Denver and is 3-4 on field goals. His makes are from 21, 34 and 53, and his miss was from 40.
 
For what it’s worth, he’s never punted in Denver. But might he?
 
Even if Ryan Allen can’t go (he wasn’t seen at Gillette today, and the official injury report won’t be out until tomorrow), there’s a very good chance that Belichick will bring in another punter instead of having Gostkowski reclaim the duties he was suddenly dealt last Sunday.
 
But maybe he won’t?
 
I mean, Gostkowski did well — five punts, a 41.8 average and a long of 53. Maybe well enough that Belichick might considering using Ryan Allen’s roster spot for another position player.
 
Eh, I doubt it. But you never know. Belichick’s pulled crazier stunts in the past.
 
Julius Thomas: Last time the Patriots and Broncos played, Rob Gronkowski was on the field and Julius Thomas was in street clothes. On Sunday, it will be the opposite, with Thomas back healthy and Gronk at home on the couch wearing nothing but a tank top and Zubaz.
 
Thomas was somewhat of an unheralded weapon for the Broncos this year. At least relative to all the attention their three receivers got. He was second on the team in touchdown catches (12) and third in yards (788) and last week, when the Broncos were on the verge of crumbling down the stretch against the Chargers and needed two big third down conversions to close out the game, Thomas converted both — a 21-yard reception on third and 17, and a nine-yard reception on third and 6.
 
He’s 6-5, 250 pounds and will add a wrinkle to the Broncos attack that New England didn’t have to deal with back in November.
 
Jamie Collins: Then again, back in November, Jamie Collins wasn’t Jamie Collins. Which begs the question: Where the hell was he? Was this all about opportunity? In that case, couldn’t have Brandon Spikes started showing up late two months ago? Either way, watching Collins break out last week — with both his first career sack and first career interception — was truly special. It was such a beautiful sign for the future, and of course the present, considering all the injury woes on defense.
 
But for all the optimism born out of Collins’ performance, the greatest came from his ability — Read: speed, athleticism — to get out in coverage against the tight ends.
 
That means you, Julius.
 
Champ Bailey/Quentin Jammer: The starting quarterback for the New England Patriots has thrown 22 career playoff interceptions, and two of those have been nabbed by active Broncos cornerbacks. As you can probably guess from the layout, those player are Bailey and Jammer.
 
Each has seen better days, but with the Broncos best cornerback (Chris Harris) down for the count with an ACL, both these former stars will be thrown back into the fire. On one hand, they’ve been there before up against No. 12 and have had some success.
 
On the other hand, that was quite a while ago.